The Wolf of Wall Street Review

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Who’d have guessed that at 71, Martin Scorsese would be making more vivacious films than most directors half his age? The Wolf of Wall Street is one of his best, a simmering 180-minute bacchanal of depravity that will be hard to best for exuberance and audacity for years to come. Scorsese doesn’t moralistically vilify real-life stock swindler Jordan Belfort, but his reduction of the man to a colossal onscreen clown is sweeter vindication still.

Convicted in 1998 for fraud and money laundering, Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) built his empire atop a foundation laid in the late ‘80s, shilling penny stocks at a two bit Long Island brokerage. Scorsese chronicles his meteoric rise to Wall Street deity and his subsequent downward spiral into drug addiction and persecution by FBI agent Gregory Coleman (renamed Patrick Denham and played by Kyle Chandler) with an urgency he hasn’t exhibited in years.

Rather than indulge in the minutia of the investigation, Scorsese indulges in Belfort’s excess: the sex, the drugs — set to his own eclectic rock & roll mixtape. But for all the glitz and gloss, he never attempts to absolve Belfort of his crimes. There’s a certain degree of flamboyant fetishism to his depiction of the protagonist’s highest highs, but Scorsese shows no pity during his lowest lows. Instead, he exploits Belfort’s foibles for uproarious karmic comedy.

The Wolf of Wall Street has all the makings of a dark comic masterpiece. Penned by Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire), the script is stocked with deeply flawed characters doing detestable things. However, the absurd depths to which Belfort and his cronies crawl are truly, deplorably funny. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (itself a pastiche of Scorsese-isms), The Wolf of Wall Street laughs at the corrosive power of wealth and success. Let there be no confusion, while Belfort’s extravagance can be awe-inspiring, his morality is unquestionably bonked.

DiCaprio relishes the role, sharply contrasting his stately take on another wealthy so-and-so, Gatsby, earlier this year. Belfort is not so Great, but Leo is great as him. In perhaps the film’s standout scene (and there are a few to choose from), an incapacitated Belfort is blitzed on expired quaaludes and must drag himself down a flight of stairs to his Lamborghini. Later, he arrives home to find his partner, Donnie Azoff (an equally impressive Jonah Hill), asphyxiating on a slice of deli meat. The entire bizarre sequence feels almost Lynchian in its relentlessly unsettling hilarity.  Bravo, Marty.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an unexpected triumph: a master class in filmmaking made all the more surprising by Scorsese’s age. Teeming with nudity, narcotics, and more “Fucks” than any narrative feature film ever (544), this is not the product of an old man. Rather, it’s the product of a director who, like Jordan Belfort, refuses to go quietly.

Where many of his contemporaries plateaued or imploded, Martin Scorsese still mines untapped passion from somewhere deep. He’s a director that has long since proved himself — and yet, the number of swooping cranes, dramatic dollies, and myriad other instances of playful experimentation in The Wolf of Wall Street is simply staggering. It stands tall among the best films of 2013, and among the greatest dark comedies of all time. It is defiant, rebellious, rude, and indecent. In another word, young.

What if Star Wars was Good Again?

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The best (and maybe worst) thing Star Wars: Episode VII has going for it is potential. Now officially dated for December 18th, 2015, the J.J. Abrams-led addendum to the beleaguered Star Wars franchise arrives a decade after Darth Vader deadpanned “NOOO!” and the world crossed its legs in collective embarrassment. Not just any franchise could survive that — but Star Wars is strong. A long time ago, seemingly in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas had a great idea. The scrappy masterpiece he unleashed in 1977 exploded off the screen and into our imaginations. Like weak-willed stormtroopers, we’re still under the spell of the force.

Even against our better judgement. Five movies and 36 years later, Abrams is saddled not with the role of director, but of necromancer. Financially, Star Wars may be as virile as ever — with enough books, discs, and merch to fill a sarlacc pit — but creatively, it’s dead and ripe. Last March, Disney spent a fortune on the corpse and is playing Dr. Frankenstein to the tune of 4.05 billion, but what’s so tantalizing about that news is not that more Star Wars is coming, but that it might not suck.

Which would be more surprising at this point; the stinging lash of another disappointment, or a truly worthy sequel to Return of the Jedi? Disney will make its money either way, but for the long-term health of their investment, it’s critical they get Episode VII right. The stakes are high, and the departure of screenwriter Michael Arndt in October, coupled with CEO Robert Iger’s reported refusal to grant the filmmakers an extension beyond December into 2016 has fans understandably discouraged.

Why? Because in a post-Phantom Menace world, we’re forced to reevaluate our naive optimism as fans. May 19, 1999. A day that shall live in infamy. Star Wars came under attack, not from without but within. In 136 minutes, George Lucas did to the franchise what the Empire did to Uncle Owen’s moisture farm, and things will never be the same. Sloppily written and clinically directed, Episode I was shockingly bad, representing probably the greatest disappointment in movie history. Its sequel, Attack of the Clones? Arguably even worse.

Opinions on Episode III vacillate, but after spending four and a half hours in the fetid toilet of Lucas’ toil, I reckon anything smells good. Years past; each inevitable home video re-release serving as a solemn reminder not just of the pallidness of the prequels, but of the ever-increasing oddball edits grafted onto the once-majestic original trilogy. Salt, meet wound.

So what can Abrams glean from the franchise’s failures? It’s a testament to Star Wars that we’re still invested in the universe, even when the odds of recapturing its youthful je ne sais quoi are, well… never tell me the odds. Obviously, a good story is vital. Now collaborating with series veteran Lawrence Kasdan on a screenplay, Abrams has a chance to restore our faith in the force, though the question becomes whether he’s a Jedi master with the power to levitate a submerged X-wing, or a padawan at whose hands it will slip deeper into the bog.

Then there’s the cast. It’s expected that Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher will reprise their iconic roles as Han, Luke, and Leia, but do we really even want them to? I could see Hamill as a grizzled old Jedi, but the charisma that always overshadowed Ford’s acting ability has long since been snuffed from his old eyes. Unless the writers can seamlessly integrate these characters into the new narrative — and unless the cast can still make Star Wars convincing — the cameos will only widen the perceived gulf between the original trilogy and everything else.

Still, credit where credit’s due: Abrams is smart. Rebooting Star Trek in 2009, he honored a legacy without becoming indebted to it. Leonard Nimoy’s appearance as Spock Prime carries real narrative weight unlike, say, the rote gag of inserting a certain comic book luminary into anything carrying the name “Marvel” — another Disney-owned property. Abrams and his casting department deserve a lot of credit, and there’s reason to be optimistic that Star Wars will tap compelling young talent. On the other hand, as Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman might attest, talent only goes so far.

Story, character, and casting need to harmonize, and soon — the biggest threat to Episode VII is the clock. In two years, we’ll be able to discuss concretely whether Star Wars is finally good again. In the meantime, the possibility that Abrams will fumble is preferable to the near certainty George Lucas would, or the absence of an attempt. The series was tarnished back in the 20th century, and by the time Episode VII premieres, Star Wars will have spent ten long years frozen in carbonite. A few stumbles will be expected after the thaw, but the real measure of its merit will be how gracefully it recovers from those first disorienting rays of sunlight.

Spent Shells

Ask a gamer to complete a Venn diagram with Mario on one side and Call of Duty on the other and you’ll get a lot of blank stares. “Mindless fun” isn’t a criticism often levied at Nintendo, but it’s exactly what they strive for with their most important franchise. Platformers, particularly 2D sidescrolling platformers, are all about quick reflexive actions to achieve a simplistic goal. Notably omitting Braid, the narrative is never terribly important; how Sonic the Hedgehog gets from Emerald Hill to Chemical Plant will remain forever a mystery. The same goes for shooters, which drop players into shallow kill-or-be-killed scenarios; the particular hypothetical presented inhibits the why.

Fun though they may be, both genres stretch the definition of art. Even a sports simulation game has the extent to which it emulates reality as a measure of artistic success — what do New Super Mario Bros. U or Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 contribute? While the latter franchise does tackle broad political ideas, it does so without nuance. Plastic-faced characters voiced by B-list actors spout military buzzwords to elaborately expound a disposable premise.

Conversely, Mario stories rehash ad nauseam a (some would argue sexist) damsel-in-distress tale, and then evaporate in complete confidence of their own unimportance. Yet both series still succeed on the terms a well-constructed blockbuster movie succeeds, which is to say, they are fun. But as my interest in blockbuster gaming wanes, fun isn’t enough anymore. When two of gaming’s most significant, stalwart franchises have become this creatively cowardly and emotionally defunct, something’s gotta give.

The best games of the expiring console cycle were not the blockbusters. Dead Space, Red Dead Redemption, and Skyrim may be remarkable artistic achievements, but the most mind-blowing moments of gaming nirvana I’ve experienced over the past eight years were the out-of-left-field experiments. Portal, Braid, and The Unfinished Swan are masterpieces that uniquely marry story with innovative gameplay to restore purposefulness to shooters and platformers in a way behemoths like Nintendo and Activision either no longer can, or don’t care to.

Indie gaming has become a major talking point of late as Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony wrestle with the internal question of just how important these games are and will become. As independent developers fumble to find a foothold in this shifting landscape, there seems to be an acknowledgment from on high that the perfunctory thrills of Mario and Call of Duty may not be infinitely sustainable.

The future is nebulous, the marketplace is crowded, and in the short term, nothing will change. The video game industry is still in many ways a surly teenager, obsessed with its own burgeoning maturity, but not without nostalgia for childhood innocence. From their first baby steps, shooters and platformers have learned to walk, run, and ride a bike — but now it’s time to decide what they want to be when they grow up. Both can and will do great things, but only after their parents abandon the endless attempts to recycle spent shells.